Paul Andersen: Mass nostalgia swings to the 1940s
Last week, my wife, Lu, and I were complimented on our swing dancing by a World War II veteran in his 90s. This frail, white-haired man motioned me over as my wife and I shuffled off the dance floor following an aerobic swing session under the spell of a Glen Miller medley.
“You look like you know what you’re doin’ out there,” he said with a smile and a glimmer in his eye that spoke of bemused pleasure.
“And you look like you know what you’re doin’ here on the sidelines,” I gave back. “That’s a fast dance floor!”
An acre of polished wood was spread over the tarmac at the Boulder Municipal Airport for a 1940s Big Band Jazz night that attracted what looked like the cast of “Saving Private Ryan.”
The costumed “troops” looked like the real deal, right down to grease-smeared faces with cigars chomped in bristled chops. Army tanks, half-tracks, Jeeps, military motorcycles, torpedo bombers and costumed revelers gave the evening a sense of authenticity.
The women were beautifully made up and outfitted — many with lines drawn down the backs of their legs to connote faux nylons in a nod to war shortages at a time of national sacrifice when ladies had no nylons, nor a lot of things we take for granted today.
Betty Grable and Jean Harlow lookalikes strutted on spiked heels. They gyred on the dance floor until their skirts flared high enough to draw attention. Their plunging necklines showed more cleavage than a breast augmentation clinic.
The men wore zoot suits and gold chains, gangster garb topped with black fedoras, and seersucker suits, like the one I wore. This suit was bequeathed to me by my dear departed friend, Bernie Rogers, who would have loved the romantic verve of the evening.
There’s something about the ’40s that speaks to an unabashed idealized vision of the swing era at a time of global upheaval. There was one war, and it was the “good war.” And there was one unified country fighting it.
The historical precedents that set that stage were blurred by an idealized crusade when “The Greatest Generation” gained mythic stature as world heroes who defeated fascism and launched an era of prosperity.
An elaborate display honored the 10th Mountain Division with mountain troop memorabilia commemorating the rugged campaigns of Mount Belvedere and Riva Ridge where the 10th saw among the highest casualties of any Allied division in the war.
I thought of the 10th veterans I knew in Aspen, like Bil Dunaway, my boss of 10 years at The Aspen Times whose widow, Barbara, recently passed. Barbara had confided that Bil returned from the war plagued by night terrors and night sweats of which he never spoke to anyone but her.
Dunaway fashioned The Aspen Times into Aspen’s newspaper of record, a respected weekly for which I was honored to report the news each week, and for which I continue writing today as a columnist of almost 35 years.
I thought of Bob Lewis, an old friend who served in the 10th in the Aleutian Islands, where a huge assault arrived two days after Japanese occupiers had retreated in the face of this newly minted American division.
Lewis went on to build the Wildwood School. He founded the Independence Pass Foundation and established the Braille and Discovery trails along Independence Pass where he also planned out trails and picnic areas at the Grottoes.
Kicking up our heels swing dancing to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” or slow dancing to “Serenade in Blue,” my wife and I celebrated the melodic orchestrations that conjured the rapidly changing world our parents lived through as children of the Great Depression.
Surrounding the Boulder airport that night were dark, brooding storm clouds spreading their menace out onto the Great Plains where flashes of lightning strobed the darkness and distance muted the thunder.
I wondered if this was how battlefields had been seen from safe havens when conventional warfare marked deadly flashpoints on distant horizons.
Nary a raindrop dampened this celebration of an era from 80 years ago, and we danced under a full moon and glittering planets to sights and sounds of the past.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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